the sun set at
The desert is a special place and
Joshua Tree is a special desert.
On his first trip to Joshua Tree National Park, Bryant Cannon ’06 wound
up with 250 tiny cholla cactus barbs in his arm after he made a wrong
move playing Frisbee in the desert.
But the park didn’t just draw blood—it drew Cannon back again and again.
Cannon, a native of Alabama, had visited Joshua Tree a dozen times by
the end of his sophomore year.
“It has kind of an otherworldly effect,” says Cannon. “There are just
Dr. Seuss trees in the middle of the desert.”
Beautiful and unpredictable, stark and yet strangely inviting, Joshua
Tree is such a familiar destination for Pomona people that it’s simply
known as “J-Tree” around campus.
Both academic endeavors and recreational adventures bring students to
the national park that stretches 90 miles across the desert north of
Palm Springs. Professors take students there to study the unique rock
formations, mineral deposits and wildlife. On The Loose, the
long-running student club devoted to the outdoors, holds its leadership
training there. Weekends bring students to J-Tree for rock climbing,
backpacking, day hikes or leisurely car-camping.
Rick Hazlett, professor of environmental sciences, has been taking
students on field trips to Joshua Tree for nearly 20 years. He likes to
drive students there on a Friday night. After slogging through all the
weekend getaway traffic, they arrive in darkness at a site smack dab in
the center of the park. Clutching flashlights, they hike one and a half
miles to camp out in a rocky wonderland.
“When the sun comes up in the morning,” says Hazlett, “everybody’s mood
is transformed and they’re just eager to explore.”
And there’s so much to explore. The park stretches across nearly 800,000
acres, incorporating rich contrasts in scenery, ranging from jagged
mountains to flat lake beds. The southern section is lower, drier and
dotted with the creosote scrub characteristic of the Sonoran Desert.
Joshua Trees and pinyon pines thrive in the north section, part of the
Mojave Desert, where snow falls at the higher elevations.
This desert is anything but dead. Five palm oases burst with wildlife.
Spring showers bring a riot of colorful wildflowers. Then there are the
famously funky Joshua Trees. The cholla cactus also gets students’
attention, as Hazlett explains how to avoid their barbs and brush them
off with a comb if necessary.
Hazlett has noticed an interesting phenomenon among students he brings
to Joshua Tree. At first, they talk in groups about their professors and
majors and the overall college experience. Then the mood shifts from
collective communication to personal meditation, and “almost everyone
will go off on their own.”
Hazlett sometimes takes students atop a rock formation dubbed the
“Astrodome,” where they get a stunning 360-degree view of the landscape.
“Most of the time I’ve been up there, people become silent,” he says.
“This is where a professor must cease to profess and let the resource do
the teaching, let people soak it all in.”